Israeli Military's $2 Billion Future Transport Helicopter Is Allergic to Dust

Besides the impact on the U.S. military, the news are an embarrassment to Israel, which just last week approved an order of 20 of the helicopters at a cost of $2.25 billion

Avi Bar-Eli
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Lockheed Martin's CH-53K helicopters in December 2016.
Lockheed Martin's CH-53K helicopters in December 2016.Credit: Lockheed Martin / NAVAIR
Avi Bar-Eli

The U.S. military is limiting the use of its new transport helicopter, Lockheed Martin’s CH-53K, after the discovery of a major engine defect.

According to a U.S. Navy report, a 21-minute exposure to dusty conditions reduced the performance of the chopper’s engine to a level that was “under the acceptable minimum.” The helicopter will now only be limited to 70 seconds flights, effectively scrapping its operational functionality.

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Besides the impact on the U.S. military, the news are an embarrassment to Israel, which just last week approved an order of 20 of the helicopters at a cost of $2.25 billion.

Is there sand in the Middle East?

According to the specialized U.S. outlet The Drive, the defect was first detected during missions flown by U.S. Marines, who have been flying the CH-53K since 2018. The force said the flaw would have a significant impact, especially in the Middle East and Afghanistan: Flight crews are often faced with ‘brownout’ conditions, where sand limits all visibility. The engine would therefore have to be repaired or replaced so frequently it could become a liability.

According to The Drive, the U.S. Navy alone has already ordered 200 CH-53K helicopters, raising concerns about a significant blow to its operational capabilities, assuming the order is rescinded. Additional tests could also delay further deliveries for a long time.

Lockheed Martin have appointed a team composed of company, army and General Electric experts, who will try and solve the problem as quickly as possible. “The team is already addressing technical issues cited in the report, a majority of which have been resolved, and are confident we have solutions to address the few outstanding issues to enter into Initial Operational Test & Evaluation as scheduled this year,” said the company.

New, but 50 percent more expensive

The CH-53K won a drawn-out bid by Israel’s Air Force, and is intended to replace its veteran Boeing-made Chinook transport helicopters. This was despite the fact that the cost of the CH-53K, including all systems and on-board equipment, is $120 million. The Chinook was offered to the IDF for only $75-80 million.

The Air Force preferred the Lockheed model, even at the expense of getting fewer helicopters, due to its relatively long range and its being completely new. It is also cheaper, it is claimed, when adjusting for long-term maintenance costs.

The decision to buy this helicopter was made one week after the ministerial committee for acquisitions approved the purchase of another squadron of F-35 warplanes, also manufactured by Lockheed Martin. These will cost $2.5 billion, which will come from the military aid the U.S. provides Israel.

Lockheed Martin's CH-53K helicopter in construction in December 2016.Credit: Lockeed Martin / NAVAIR

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